House Agricultural Committee plants seeds for regulating organic food safety

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BY BRIDGET MACDONALD – MEDILL NEWS SERVICE

In the wake of a succession of food safety scares over the past few years involving the likes of tomatoes, spinach and peanuts, the House Agricultural Committee is taking a preemptive strike against food contamination in the expanding field of organic production.

The subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture convened for a hearing Thursday to discuss strategies and standards for preventing, monitoring and controlling potential food safety hazards in this quickly expanding agricultural sector.

Although organic foods are generally perceived as being healthier than conventional foods because pesticides and herbicides are not used in their production, the industry is not immune from the potential hazards of large-scale, commercial distribution.

Within an industrial food system, where the journey from field to plate is interrupted by numerous pit stops, safety issues related to storage, handling and processing can trump responsible cultivation techniques.

The range of testimonials at Thursday’s hearing, from representatives at the Food and Drug Administration, the Agricultural Marketing Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provided an indication of the compartmentalization that has led to cracks in the regulatory system.

Committee chairman Congressman Dennis Cardoza pointed out, “There are currently 15 different federal agencies tasked with monitoring the safety and security of our food supply.”

But given the number of different players with their hands in the food supply, there are inevitably competing interests at stake. Subcommittee Ranking Member Jean Schmidt of Ohio spoke to the likely head butting to come:

“I know many producers in my state have concerns about the FDA regulating on-farm activities. I share these concerns based on the recognition that while FDA has vast expertise regulating food processing, the agency has little expertise or infrastructure to fairly and effectively regulate farm production practices.”

Despite the challenge of finding common ground, the number of voices in the debate and the urgency of the dialogue is another indication that organics are poised to become a larger and more accessible component of the nation’s food supply.

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